It’s hard to pin down Robert Barry Fleming: He’s been a director, choreographer, actor, and administrator for such theatres as Cleveland Play House and Arena Stage. This diverse résumé has taken him around the country: He’s lived in Cleveland, New York City, San Diego, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Now his new job is taking him home. He’s currently in the midst of his first season as artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, a short drive from where Fleming grew up. Below Fleming talks about what he hopes from his new job and moving beyond the scarcity model.
DIEP TRAN: What was your pitch to the board of Actors Theatre of Louisville?
ROBERT BARRY FLEMING: I grew up in Frankfort, Ky., which is about 50 minutes away from the theatre. I think that a significant piece of any leadership transition comes down to: How quickly can I get to know that community in a really 360-degree deep and visceral way? The reality is, one can learn facts and meet people, but to really understand the character of place and how to navigate that in an effective way can be less clear—that’s one reason it takes a lot of time for people to start seeing real impact in those communities, because relationship-building takes time.
Being a Kentuckian who had also been away for decades gave me both an insider and outsider view in how I might effectively lead and serve in that organization. That is part of what makes it a good fit for me.
Being the rare person of color to lead a large, multi-million-dollar institution, do you feel the pressure to bring change to the theatre?
I don’t think I feel any more pressure than I have at any other time I’ve been in front of a challenge. Part of my experience of being socially located as Black and queer in North America is that overcoming challenges is simply my default modus operandi. I have 55 years of practice; I feel that affords me as much readiness as anyone to assume a leadership role in the North American regional theatre system. It’s taken me 50 years to be afforded my “Jackie Robinson moment”: the chance to lead a large, multi-million dollar institution, and I believe that may have less to do with my ability or readiness to do the job, and more about the dominant culture demonstrating readiness for leadership that looks like many of us in this new cohort of artistic directors across our country. The conversation for me wasn’t, Am I ready to lead? It was: Are you ready to let me lead? Are you ready to let me be of service?
I don’t self-identify as a unicorn or as “the exceptional Negro.” I’ve been mentored and trained by exceptional people throughout my life, and it’s from them that I’ve gained perspective on how to navigate a system that works from binaries or frameworks that hold a scarcity mentality. That scarcity mentality—the idea that there’s not enough opportunities for everybody—that’s just not how I think and it’s not how I operate. I think diversity includes diversity of viewpoints.
You’re a choreographer, director, and actor. As a multidisciplinary artist, it doesn’t seem like adding artistic director is much of a stretch for you.
I’ve enjoyed and been bemused by the efforts to identify my varied professional identities as an artist/administrator in various articles. Sometimes I’m identified as a producer, a performer, a choreographer. When I was working primarily as an actor, my answer when asked, “What’s your thing?” was to say, “My thing is I do everything.” And the response would be, “That’s not a thing. We can’t sell that.” But that’s just because the reductive nature of labels hasn’t accurately captured the nature of who I am. I’ve become reluctant to adjust just because in a capitalistic system, one often has to sell their wares in that manner.
How much of you wearing different hats was because it’s hard to make a living wage in theatre doing just one thing?
I was making my living as an actor; that wasn’t the reason to stop acting as a primary focus. I moved from New York City to Los Angeles because I got Jelly’s Last Jam at the Mark Taper Forum, which led to a television pilot, which was picked up for 100 episodes, and then led to more television and film work. But it is also true that being a Black, queer character actor who was always a multidisciplinary artist, there was never going to be enough dramatic literature for me to make an ongoing living doing work that I found fulfilling and spoke to my life purpose.
I went out to L.A., and I did a lot of work I’d characterize as less than satisfying and ultimately too reductive to maintain my enthusiasm and growing interests. If I had dreads, I was the delivery boy with an attitude. If I didn’t have dreads, I was the nerdy, straight-laced middle-class Black Cosby kid.
I also knew that playing “third Negro from the left” in a project was not going to provide better representation of any historically marginalized person, nor would it address a larger distorted narrative about who Black people are. Continuing to engage in that game was continued participation in a system that was fundamentally saying, “Yeah, I’ll tell whatever story you’ll pay me to.” What I really needed was an intentional disruption of that problematic relationship of art and commerce.
I started to get the hunch that I could have more impact doing something else, and approach my art and career more holistically, while feeling deeply satisfied. It has been a process of elimination: Let me take this next step, the next opportunity that’s presenting itself. And eventually a path revealed itself to me. I began to see that what I’ve chosen actually chose me. We make it happen together. I’m grateful that Actors Theatre and I mutually chose each other and we look forward to the great art and civic service we get to share with, and contribute to, our Greater Louisville community, as well the promising future ahead.